My dear People of God,
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the Teacher and Giver of our faith!
These days many people are saying different things about tithes, that is, giving one tenth of one's income to God as commanded by God. Many, especially non-Catholic Christians, insist on tithes and threaten people with calamities if they do not give their tithes. Many of these people, mostly pastors and “men and women of God” successfully enrich themselves with tithes. They use what they get from tithes to gather more worldly goods such as private jets, exotic cars and magnificent buildings and huge bank accounts. Others, especially Catholics, claim that tithes are not necessary in Christianity and even should not be carried out. It becomes necessary to study the Scripture and Tradition to understand the true nature and position of tithes in the lives of Christians. Should Catholics pay tithes or not? And who should benefit from the tithes?
Giving of tithes was clearly done in the Old Testament. Tithing is giving one tenth of one's income to God as was instructed in the Old Testament. The first time tithe was mentioned was in Genesis where the actions of Abram were reported. Abram had gone to fight against the people who had conquered Sodom and Gomorrah and captured Lot, his nephew. Abram defeated the kings and people and recovered his nephew and also recaptured all the goods which those enemies had taken. Coming back he was received by Melchizedek, King of Salem who brought bread and wine as he was also a priest of the God Most High. Abram gave him a tenth of everything (Genesis 14:20). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews presented the payment of tithe by Abram later Abraham to Melchizedek and placed it in line with the tithes given to the descendants of Levi (see Hebrews 7:4-10). The tenth of everything is the tithe. The first incident of giving of tithe in the Bible was the one of Abram and Melchizedek. There was no evidence of any law then for the payment of tithes. It may be a traditional practice. However, it got into the way of life of the Israelites.
The law about tithes came out during the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. In the Book of Leviticus, the law about tithes was presented: “All tithes on land, levied on the produce of the soil or on the fruit of trees, belong to Yahweh; they are consecrated to Yahweh. If anyone wishes to redeem part of his tithe, he will add one-fifth to its value” (Leviticus 27:30-31). It is clear that the tithes were from food and animal products, the produce of the soil or fruit of trees as well as herds or flock (see Leviticus 27:32). It is also clear that tithes were for God. However, people were also to eat their own tithes: “Every year, you must take a tithe of what your fields produce from what you have sown and, in the presence of Yahweh your God, in the place where he chooses to give his name a home, you must eat the tithe of your wheat, of your new wine and of your oil, and the first-born of your herd and flock; and by so doing, you will learn always to fear Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). They were expected therefore to eat their tithe in the presence of God where God chose for them. They were not to eat the tithe at home: “You must not eat the tithe of your wheat, of your new wine or of your oil, or the first-born of your heard or flock or any votive offerings or voluntary offerings or your offerings held high to Yahweh at home. You must eat these in the presence of Yahweh your God in the place (see Deuteronomy 14:22,23,28).
Tithes were also given as the heritage for Levites including the priests: “the Levites will have no heritage among the Israelites, for the tithe which the Israelites set aside for Yahweh is the heritage I have given the Levites ... When from Israelites you receive the tithe which I have given you from them as your heritage, you must set a portion aside for Yahweh: a tithe of tithe ... Thus you too will set a portion aside for Yahweh out of all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. You will give what you have set aside for Yahweh to the priest Aaron” (Numbers 18:24, 26, 28). Priests and Levites were also to benefit from the tithes. Tithes were also to be used to help those in need. As was instructed in the Book of Deuteronomy, tithes would be given not only to the Levites but also to the foreigners, the orphans and the widows. The poor and needy “may also eat to their heart's content, in the presence of Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 26:12). After the people had brought the tithes of their harvests, the Levites, the foreigners, the orphans and widows living in the community would come and eat what they would want (see Deuteronomy 14:28).
The people were required to bring their tithes to the place where God would decide: “That is where you must bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and offerings held high, your votive offerings and your voluntary offerings, and the first-born of your herd and flock” (Deuteronomy 12:6; see also 12:11, 17). Tithes of various kinds and objects were brought to places where God made His place and eventually to the Temple. It is clearly evident that tithes had to do with God's designs and desires even though God would not consume the materials. Those things given as tithes were given in obedience to and respect for God from whom every good thing in the world comes. Tithes were typically for thanksgiving to God
Israelites used to bring and handle their tithes as required. This came as King Hezekiah re-established the priestly and levitical orders directing the people to bring burnt offerings and communion sacrifices, to give thanks and praise within the gates of the camp of God: “As soon as the order had been promulgated, the Israelites provided the first fruits of grain, new wine, olive oil, honey and every other kind of agricultural produce in abundance; they [the Israelites] brought in an abundant tithe of everything. The Israelites and Judeans living in the towns of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of sacred gifts consecrated to Yahweh their God (see 2 Chronicles 31:5-7, 12). During the time of Nehemiah, tithes were regularly collected from every town of the Jewish religion: “An Aaronite priest will accompany the Levites when they collect the tithes, and the Levites will bring a tenth part of the tithes to the Temple of our God, into the treasury storerooms” (Nehemiah 10:36,37,38). Supervisors were appointed to collect the tithes from the various town lands awarded by Law to the priests and Levites (Nehemiah 12:44). Large rooms were prepared for storing the tithes and all Judah delivered the tithe of corn, wine and oil to the storehouses (see Nehemiah 13:5, 12). Prophet Amos announced that people who were making sacrifices, delivering tithes and thanksgiving and free-will offerings still were committing sin (see Amos 4:4). This was meant to warn people that tithes should not be the primary thing in their relation with God.
However, at a time the people stopped bringing their tithes. Through Prophet Malachi God complained about the cheating being done by the Israelites. God wanted the people to return to Him but the people were wondering how they would return to God: “You ask, 'How are we to return? Can a human being cheat God?' Yet you try to cheat me! You ask, 'How do we try to cheat you?' Over tithes and contributions. A curse lies on you because you, this whole nation, try to cheat me. Bring the tithes in full to the treasury, so that there is food in my house; put me to the test now like this, says Yahweh Sabaoth, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you and pour out abundant blessing” (Malachi 3:7-10). Indeed, tithes would bring God's blessing.
It is clear that the Jews still gave the tithes during the time of Jesus Christ because Jesus himself mentioned the paying of tithes by Jews. He told the Pharisees, “But alas for you Pharisees, because you pay your tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42; see also Matthew 23:23). It means that Jesus recognised the paying of tithes but insisted that the love of God should be the primary responsibility of any believer. Again we can see the story told by Jesus Christ about the prayer of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee in praying said, “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get” (Luke 18:12). While Jesus did not in any way condemn the paying of tithes, he showed that humility was more important in the life of the faithful than displaying prosperity.
We must admit that there is no explicit regulation or laws about tithes in the New Testament. Normally, the Church carried on most of the laws in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition unless explicitly forbidden by the Church authorities. In the first major meeting of the Church about the demands from gentiles who were converted, the Apostles made decisions to allow the gentiles who became Christians to practise Christianity without taking over all Jewish laws and traditions: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to impose on you any burden beyond these essentials: you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from illicit marriages. Avoid these, and you will do what is right. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29). There was no mention of tithe, either imposing it or forbidding it.
There is no evidence that the Church forbade the contribution of tithes. But there is also no evidence that the Church made a law for obligation of contribution or payment of tithes by Christ's faithful. But it is likely that the contribution or payment of tithes has been going on in the Catholic Church but not as universal obligation. In fact, in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Church stated: “Ad decimarum et primitiarum solutionem quod attinet, peculiaria statuta ac laudabiles consuetudines in unaquaque regione serventur – As to tithes (dimes) and first-fruits, the special statutes and praiseworthy local customs should be observed” (1917 Canon 1502). This shows that the Catholic Church approved the contribution of tithes in the Church but did not make it universal obligation. Even though this law is not in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there is no abrogation of what the local customs do about tithes.
In the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi, payment of tithes is encouraged but no obligation is attached to it. People are requested to pay tithes at Mass every Sunday or on any time, knowing that God blesses and rewards anybody giving something to the Church and for charity. Generally, the tithe is one tenth of one's income. Even though in the Old Testament, tithes were from products of farming and animal husbandry, the tithes requested in the Diocese of Nnewi are generally from monetary income. The tithes are for thanksgiving to God and are for God to whom the Church depends for everything. The tithes are for the work of the Church and not just for the personal enrichment of the Bishop and priests, even though priests and Church workers can also benefit from tithes in accordance with the proper objectives of the Church. The proper objectives of the Church are principally the regulation of divine worship, the provision of fitting support for the clergy and other ministers, and the carrying out of works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially for the needy” (Canon 1254 §2). This is in line with the use of tithes in the Old Testament, even though the people who brought the tithes were also expected to eat it with priests, Levites, widows, orphans and strangers. Tithes are put in the rectory accounts and the tithe of tithes (that is, one tenth of the tithes see Numbers 18:26) is paid by the Parish Priests directly to the diocesan account. All the income is used for the work of God in the Church.
We should be careful not to impose the paying of tithes as a law and obligation. We should also avoid abuse of tithes as means of personal enrichment. The People of God are encouraged to pay the tithe in thanksgiving to God who is the source of everything human beings own. The whole spirit of tithing is to be understood in the teaching of St. Paul. According to St. Paul, “But remember: anyone who sows sparsely will reap sparsely as well - and anyone who sows generously will reap generously as well. Each one should give as much as he has decided on his own initiative, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. God is perfectly able to enrich you with every grace, so that you always have enough for every conceivable need, and your resources overflow in all kinds of good work” (2 Corinthians 9:6-9). Even though St. Paul was not talking about tithes but about contributions for the helping those in need, his ideas can be used to encourage people to give their tithes to God through the Church. For us, the giving of tithes and free-will offerings in the Church is one of the ways of investing in heaven as Jesus required: “Do not store up your treasures for yourselves on earth... But store up treasures for yourselves in heaven... For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be too” (Matthew 6:19-21).
May God guide and bless those who give their tithes and offerings to God through the Church as well as those who receive and use the tithes and offerings in the Church as “tithe of sacred gifts consecrated to Yahweh their God” (2 Chronicles 31:6)!
Most Rev. Hilary Paul Odili Okeke
Bishop of Nnewi